Spying on Foreigners Is a Big Deal

Are European countries really going to let thousands of spy cameras into their countries with no legal protections?

Photo by Ole Spata/AFP/Getty Images

As Edward Snowden has had more opportunity to talk, it’s clear that one thing that bothers him about U.S. intelligence conduct is that something perfectly legal is happening—large-scale snooping on foreigners. And many Americans are going to shrug at that. The Constitution is here to protect our rights, and spying on foreigners is exactly what the NSA is supposed to be doing.

Which is all quite right, but in the exciting world of globalization it’s really worth underscoring the fact that this is a big deal for the global economy. The stock market valuations of your Googles and your Facebooks are based on the proposition that the potential market for online services is global. The assumption is that things like the Great Firewall of China are the exception rather than the rule, and that in the long run the dialectic of history pushes toward openness and interoperability. The idea that American intelligence agencies have more-or-less unrestricted access to foreigners’ communications cuts very sharply against that. You may not care about the privacy of German people’s emails, but German people care and Angela Merkel has to care.

In the longer term, we’re either going to have to see fragmentation of Internet commerce or else we’re going to need some kind of credible common standards. Democratically elected governments in Europe, Latin America, and Asia are going to be expected to take steps to safeguard their own citizens’ privacy vis-a-vis the United States. Ideally that would take place through the mechanism of international privacy protection agreements that allow us to keep the international Internet that we know and love. But if it’s not possible to reach agreement, then U.S.-based tech firms are going to find themselves subject to overlapping and contradictory regulatory schemes. The status quo in which American companies operate as a stalking horse for foreign intelligence operations isn’t going to be sustainable.